Jacob limped forward and bowed again. It was hard to get up; his hip was still pained from the previous night’s struggle. With every step that brought him closer to his brother, he became more terrified. Last night, this fear caused him to send everyone else across the river and stay behind alone.
He wanted to pray, by himself, because he didn’t know what else to do.
Years before, he had twice cheated his brother. First he swindled Esau from his birthright for a bowl of stew. Later he tricked his blind father into giving him Esau’s blessing. Esau had been angry and vowed revenge, so Jacob had hightailed it, traveling hundreds of miles to stay with relatives in Mesopotamia.
The brothers had not seen each other for 20 years. Esau was a mighty hunter, a tough guy who knew how to kill. Jacob was a shepherd and a mama’s boy. In a straight fight with Esau, Jacob would’ve lost every time—and he knew it.
So when he heard that Esau was approaching with 400 men (presumably armed), he was scared to death. He had a family full of women and children. He had flocks and herds and shepherds. He had a handful of armed guards to protect the livestock from predators…but not an army. He could neither fight nor escape. If Esau made good on his threat, they would be like lambs to the slaughter.
When God Weakened Jacob
So he had sent everyone away and prayed alone. Then the stranger came and fought him. They struggled until daybreak, when something strange had occurred. The opponent touched the socket of his thigh, dislocating it. All Jacob could do was keep holding on to the man. He demanded a blessing, from one so obviously powerful, and the man changed his name to Israel, “he persists with God.”
God! Was it really God with whom he had struggled? And was it really God who had injured him? For his situation had worsened: He was already unable to fight Esau, and now he has a limp.
He had prayed for deliverance, and God had weakened him further.
Sending gifts before him and placing his family behind him, he now cautiously approaches Esau, bowing seven times in homage. No point in taking an aggressive stance. Nothing to do but show submission and hope for the best. Imagine, then, his relief when Esau runs to him and wraps him in what must have been a crushing embrace. Jacob and Esau were reconciled that day.
When God Weakens You
We can all empathize with Jacob here. We face a situation that has us on the ropes. We can’t think of anything to do. We pray for God to rescue us—but the situation gets worse. You already have too much debt, so you pray, and then the car gets wrecked. You get bad news from the doctor, so you pray, and then your insurance denies coverage because of some technicality.
That’s how Moses and the Hebrews must have felt when Pharaoh stopped giving them straw (Exodus 5), and how Gideon felt when God reduced his army from 32,000 to 300 (Judges 6-7). Yet in all these situations, God is victorious. See what God says to Gideon in Judges 7:2:
“The people who are with you are too many for me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘my own power has delivered me.’”
God delivers his people, but he wants there to be no doubt about who has delivered them. It is not the size of the army. It is not strength, intellect, zeal, money, or any other human resource. This theme reaches its zenith in God’s triumph over sin in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Will You Walk by Faith?
There’s nothing anyone could do to defeat sin. It was always an insurmountable enemy. And while God never tempts anyone to sin (James 1:13), he does put his people in places and situations where temptation and hardship are inevitable; Jesus sends his disciples out “as sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16).
Throughout the Bible story, God’s people are never safe from the threat of temptation and the realities of suffering. They are surrounded by people and nations who do not know God or his ways, who call evil good and good evil, and who want them to do the same.
As if I don’t have enough tendency to sin within myself, I must constantly also be enticed from without. And then things in life go wrong, and I must contend with the fact that while God is good, life is hard. When I think my faith cannot be stretched any more, he allows some other injury, something worse happens. And then I must limp toward that which I fear, hoping in the God who allows me to be weakened, that he will somehow deliver me.
What will I choose? Will I believe this God who promises good to me, or will I believe what I can grasp and accomplish? Will I walk by faith, or by sight?
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone. (Augustus Montague Toplady)